Words and Images by Marvin Samaniego and Kristel Cuba-Samaniego——
Jeju Island is a place you’ve probably heard if you are into Koreanovelas. It’s usually the vacation site for most Korean drama shows and movies. But for our family with no member who’s into K-Pop, the visit to the island is one for the books.
Our recent family trip to Jeju was unplanned but it turned out to be one of the most memorable due to our many firsts, i.e. our first snow experience, me driving abroad, etc. We actually planned for a winter family vacation in Sapporo, Japan early this year but due to visa constraints, we were forced to look for another place to experience the cold. Searching through the destination list of Cathay Pacific, we found the perfect match to our dream “visa free – winter feels” destination – Jeju Island in South Korea.
If you are a Filipino passport holder and is dreaming to visit South Korea visa-free, then consider going to Jeju. It is the largest island off the coast of the Korean peninsula. And if you enjoy being one with nature while being immersed with the culture and heritage of the places you are visiting. Jeju Island is the place to be. It’s a volcanic island of various UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites and lava tubes.
The temperature forecast in Jeju during our visit was 0-5°C, however, the real temperature feel was around -2°C with snow fall during mornings. Direct flights to Jeju are not available from Manila. Filipinos can take a Cathay Dragon flight from Hong Kong, also a non-visa territory, or fly via Seoul through the Incheon International Airport which, of course, require a Korean visa. We chose the first option and took advantage of it by staying overnight in Hong Kong. While waiting for our next day flight, we were able to make a side trip to Ngong Ping, home of the Tian Tan Buddha in HK.
From HK Airport, we took the Sunday flight to Jeju. Based on our research, the best way to explore Jeju Island is by renting your own car or by joining organized bus tour. Public transportation in Jeju is not recommended because attractions are situated far from each other. We opted to rent a car (~120,000 KRW for 3 days excluding petroleum cost) as this option was cheaper compared to joining tour groups (~80,000 KRW per day per person). Another advantage of renting a car is that you can arrange your itinerary based on your interest. Plus, your schedule is also flexible depending on how much time you will need for photo ops ☺. We had our car from Lotte Rent-a-Car which also provides car insurance, English GPS, and snow anti-slip chain for tires. For this, Marvin presented an International Drivers Permit (which he secured from Automobile Association of the Philippines) and his own credit card (cash payment is not allowed).
Driving in Jeju is easier than driving in Manila. Jeju International Airport to Jeju City, where our hotel is located, is just about 5 to 10-minute drive. After checking in at the hotel, we decided to grab our first meal in Jeju, pork noodles (Price 7,000 KRW). We asked for cheap recommendations from the receptionist and he did not fail us. Food servings are relatively bigger for our Filipino appetite and the food is really good for sharing. After our meal, we strolled around the city while enjoying the cold afternoon weather until our feet were too tired to sleep the night away.
Day 1: Southwest Course
Jeju Love Land
(Admission Fee: 12,000 KRW)
Jeju Love Land is the only sexual theme park in Korea. Twenty artists who are graduates of Hongik University in Seoul created sexually oriented sculptures. The park showcases 140 works created by the artists. Love Land is a fun place for mature people. The artworks were even dramatically highlighted by snow which was a plus to our photos. Just a tip, if you want to avoid photobombers, you can visit the place on its opening hour (9:00 a.m.).
(Admission Fee: Free)
Yakcheonsa is a Buddhist temple of the Jogye Order. The temple measures 30 meters high and has a total area of 3,305 square meters. It’s one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Asia. Aside from the tangerine trees surrounding the temple, there’s nothing much to see. But it’s a perfect place for meditation because of its calming atmosphere especially during the winter.
(Admission Fee: 2,500 KRW)
Jusangjeolli Cliff is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. It is an impressive pillar volcanic rock formation at the southern coast of Jeju Island. The formation looks like a piece of art that has been sculpted with a sharp tool. The cliff was formed when the lava from Hallasan Mountain erupted in the sea of Jungmun. The waves of the high tide crashing into the side of the cliff provide a breathtaking view of the ocean surrounding the pillars. This is probably one of the picture-perfect sites you can visit in Jeju. However, most bus tour agencies include this place in their itineraries on Sundays only.
Teddy Bear Museum
(Admission Fee: 10,000 KRW)
Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju became famous among Asians because it was featured in Korean drama “Princess Hours”. The Teddy bears are displayed according to three categories: History Museum, Art Gallery, and in Natural Surroundings. History of the past 100 years are told with the Teddy Bear charm. Masterpieces like Mona Lisa, the Thinker, the Kiss, and notable celebrities are reborn as teddy bears. Human-sized teddy bears can be found in the garden braced by the fresh ocean breezes of Jeju.
(Admission Fee: 2,000 KRW)
Cheongjeyeon Falls, named “The Pond of God,” consists of three sections. In the first cascade, the cliff is 22 meters and the water falls into Cheonjeyeon pond. From there, the water goes to the second falls and continues to the third waterfalls, which eventually reaches the ocean. Above the falls is Seonimgyo Bridge, an arch bridge with 7 nymphs carved on the side, which connects the Cheonjeyeon Falls with Jungmum Tourist Complex. We only managed to trek until the bridge because it was getting darker, colder, and our feet were really tired.
The trip from the West coast to Jeju City is around 45 min to 1 hour drive. We had Korean barbeque for dinner near our hotel before calling it a day. Hooray for unlimited sides!
Day 2: East Course
We didn’t realize that there was a heavy snow fall during the early hours until we reached a road mostly covered with snow. On the way to our first destination, a police officer asked us to pull over to inquire on our destination as some of the roads were not passable. He told us that we can proceed upon informing him that we were off to the Jeju Stone Park.
Jeju Stone Park
(Admission Fee: 5,000 KRW)
Jeju Stone Park was inspired by Jeju’s history of myth, stone, and spirit. The main theme consists of the legend about Seolmundae Halmang (Grandmother Seolmundae) who created Jeju Island and the stones of Obaek Janggun (the Five Hundreds Generals). The park provides a historical and cultural space where collected stones express Jeju’s foundation and culture.
We did not actually manage to get inside the park due to heavy snow fall. We feared that our car might got stuck in the parking lot which spelled more trouble for us. Nonetheless, we still enjoyed taking pictures of the façade. My sister even laid down the heaps of snow and formed a snow angel. After snow kicking and snow throwing, we decided to return to Jeju City hoping for a better weather ahead of us. We had lunch in a local restaurant in Jeju Dongmum Traditional Market and bought some souvenirs and pasalubongs as well.
Jeju Dongmum Traditional Market
(Admission Fee: Free)
This is Jeju’s largest and oldest permanent market. This is very popular with tourist because it’s a combination of a street market, night market, traditional market, and seafood market all in one place. You can also find many stalls where you can eat and shop. We bought local Jeju chocolates, Harubang (stone grandfather) displays and ref magnets as souvenirs. We also had a free taste of their yummy tangerines, the best by far.
In the afternoon, we decided to continue with our East course tour to Manjanggul Lava Tube and Seongsan Ilchulbong.
Mangjanggul Lava Tube
(Admission Fee: 2,000 KRW)
Manjanggul Lava Tube is one of the largest lava tubes in the world with a total length of 7.4 kilometer long. However, only 1 kilometer of the cave is open for tourists. It is regarded as having significant scientific and heritage value, owing to its excellent condition of preservation despite its age of formation (about 300,000 to 200,000 years ago). The lava tunnel was formed when the lava that was deep in the ground spew from the peak and flowed to the surface. Manjanggul Cave has a variety of interesting structures inside including lava stalactites and lava stalagmites. It’s also home to living creatures, such as cave-spiders and bats.
While ample lighting are installed inside the cave, comfortable shoes are a must inside the cave because of the slippery and uneven floor surface.
Realizing that we have enough time for another spot. We decided to go to Seongsan Ilchulbong which is a 20 to 30-minute drive from Manjanggul. It’s situated in eastern most part of Jeju Island.
Seongsan Ilchulbong (Seongsan Sunrise Peak)
(Admission Fee: 2,000 KRW)
Seongsan Sunrise Peak rose from under the sea in a volcanic eruption over 5,000 years ago. It is located in the eastern end of Jeju Island. There is a huge crater at the top of Seongsan sunrise peak (tuff cone-shape). The tuff cone is 182 meters high and its crater is 600 meters in diameter and 90 meters high.
There are numerous hydromagmatic volcanoes similar to the Seongsan Ilchulbong, but there are no other known hydromagmatic volcanoes with a well-preserved tuff cone and diverse internal structures along a sea cliff. Because of these scientific values and remarkable scenery, Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone was designated as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site.
Our trek going up and down the Peak took us around 2 hours since we climbed with our Mama. At the peak, you’ll have a magnificent view of the city and the crater. With the cold breeze touching your cheek, savor the view at the peak while taking a rest before going down.
As you descend the Seongsan Ilchulbong, you’ll find the place for the Haenyeo (female divers) Performance. We missed to witness the show since their performance is scheduled at 1:30PM and 3PM only. We were there at around 5PM ☹. To appease, we decided to have some snacks and refreshments down the peak where you can find a variety of fast food, cafes, and local restaurants.
Because of the unfriendly weather, we missed the Seongeup Folk Village which was originally included in our Day 2 itinerary. According to our research, we were supposed to see cultural properties in the village such as residential houses as well as shrines, school, government offices, and stone statues and monuments. Maybe, it’s a reason to visit Jeju during the spring or summer season.
Going back to our hotel, it was an hour drive from Seongsan to Jeju City. We decided to have the authentic black pig ogyeopsal for dinner. Most people are familiar with samgyeopsal which literally means “three-layered pork”. Ogyeopsal, on the other hand, means “five-layed pork”. They say that black pig ogyeopsal can only be found in Jeju Island and is not available in other parts of Korea. Black pig is very popular in Jeju especially with the folk people. It’s usually more expensive than the standard pork meat because it’s more tender and juicy.
In sum, Jeju Island is one of the best places visited by our family. It really exceeded our expectations. The experience we had in the island is way different from capital Seoul. Jeju offers you a different side of Korea, it’s a union of heritage and nature. I now understand why this place is popular among Koreans for their R&Rs. We highly recommend that you experience the island yourself.